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Posts Tagged ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’

“I didn’t go to film school—I went to films.”
Quentin Tarantino

Note: I’ll start The Unofficial Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood Film School with a list of 10, and then add and update this post from time to time. There will be spoilers. And I’m sure some of these notes will make it into the final draft of my almost finished book.

It’s unusual for me to write much about movies while they are still in theaters because there hasn’t been enough time to reflect on them. It’s not in the general collective consciousness yet.

But I think Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is an instant classic. And while I don’t know how many $90 million original stories are going to be made in the future, I think there are things to take away from Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film that can help a filmmaker of any budget.

Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) once commented that anyone wanting to be a film director should watch the George Stevens classic A Place in the Sun 50 times. The thing about watching a single film 50 times—verses say, 50 films—is you get a deep understanding of how the film was made.

I have seen Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood seven times in theaters in the first seven weeks of its release. (Apparently, I’m on the once a week as needed plan.) Here are some things I’ve observed. Please feel free to comment on or send me an email so I can continue to make this a valuable resource for others.

  1. Embrace Limitations
    “It’s difficult to have a lot of characters.”—Francis Ford Coppola
    Though Once Upon a Time runs two hours and 41 minutes it centers around just three characters: Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).  While there is a great supporting cast those are the three characters whose point of views Tarantino focused on. And along with those three characters there are three stories lines. A) Rick’s career and buddy relationship with Cliff. B) Cliff’s dog and excursion to Spahn Ranch where the Mason cult lives. C) A few days in the life of actress Sharon Tate. These three stories are connected in the climax and resolution at the end of the story.  Essentially the movie takes place over just three days in 1969, and is limited to a few locations. Rick’s western film set, Rick’s house and Sharon’s house (just one crane shot away), Spahn Ranch (an run down exterior movie set used on old westerns), and the streets of L.A. Cliff’s trailer, three restaurants, LAX airport and insert shots are sprinkled in, but the main story takes place on just a handful of locations. (Not that it matters as much on a $90 million budget, but using limited characters for limited days cuts down on wardrobe costs. I imagine they could have dressed Cliff for under $1,000 for the entire shoot—including rental of that 1960s era scuba outfit.)
  2. Ticking clock/Bomb Under the Table 
    “As you explore some of the great classics of stage and screen, you will see that most have a ‘bomb under the table.’”
    —Director Alexander Mackendrick (Sweet Smell of Success)
    On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director
    Hitchcock explained that if the audience saw a bomb under the table as two characters talk that the most mundane conversation is riveting because there is built in suspense because of the danger involved. At some point we expect that bomb to go off. Tarantino doesn’t even show the bomb under the table—because of the horrific events of August 9, 1969 you’re expected to know that going in to the theaters. The clock is ticking before the movie starts.
    The Bomb Under the Table
    Ticking Clock (Tip #103)
  3. Major Dramatic Question
    The the first major dramatic question was set up in the second scene when Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) lays out Rick’s career options. Keep doing bad guy guest appearances on TV and watch his career die, or go to Italy and star in spaghetti westerns. After that meeting Rick sees Sharon and her director husband Roman Polanski in passing and says to Cliff that he’s, “One pool party away from staring in a Polanski movie.” The other major question is just how is this film going to end? How do Sharon Tate, Cliff, Rick, and the Mason cult collide at Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon?
    The Major or Central Dramatic Question 
  4. Characters/Casting
    Tarantino said he could do five movies just on Cliff Booth’s time in World War II. That’s indicative of the layers of reserves that Tarantino had for the characters he was writing. So he wrote some fascinating characters you want to hang out with and in doing so attracted an incredible cast of actors working at the highest level of craft.
    Writing Actor Bait
  5. Conflict
    The story is full of conflict on every level. Rick with his career. Rick and his alcohol. Rick and his lines of dialogue. Cliff and the gang at Spahn Ranch. Cliff getting kicked off a movie lot. Cliff underemployed as a stuntman. Cliff confronted by someone with a gun telling him, “I’m the devil and I’m here to do the devil’s work.” Even Sharon Tate as a ray of sunshine has a cloud of conflict over her as we the audience know what happened to her in real life.
    Conflict-Conflict-Conflict
  6. Theme
    Rick tells the 8-year-old Trudi that he’s reading a book about a character named Easy Breezy, and she asks him, “Where are you in it?” It’s a line of double meaning. He’s technically on page so and so, but where he’s really in it is the main character Easy Breezy who as Rick explains, “He’s not the best anymore. Far from it. Coming to terms with being slightly more useless everyday.” It’s an echo of that other cowboy named Woody who is coming to the end of the line at the start of Toy Story 3. Perhaps one time movie star/singer Tad Hunter said it best in the doc Tad Hunter Confidential, “Products of Hollywood are interchangeable, and ultimately replaceable.” (Hunter was so big in the 1950s that he once got a role over Paul Newman and James Dean, and had a record knock Elvis out of the #1 position on the charts. But he didn’t make the transitiona smoothly into the new Hollywood of the late ’60s.)
    Writing from Theme
  7. Restraint 
    Tarantino is a fan of the exploitation films—the low budget ones that played on double bills at drive in theaters. Films that often centered around prisons, bikers, stock car races, and teenagers. They came with titles like Switchblade Sisters, Caged Heat, Werewolves on Wheels, and Revenge of the Cheerleaders. They usually had a mix of gratuitous sex and violence.  Knowing that Spahn Ranch was a place where Charlie Mason attracted teenage girls (as young as 15) for sex and drugs (along with his racist rants), Tarantino could have easily exploited a situation where young girls were dropping acid and running around naked. He could have shown the charismatic side of Manson that allowed him to befriend record producer Terry Melcher and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson—both who visited Manson and the girls at Spahn Ranch. But he didn’t. And by Cliff simply turning down Pussycat’s sexual offer sure seemed like a post-Weinstein/Epstein era touch. And once upon a time, producers would have see shooting at the Playboy Mansion an excuse to show at least one topless female in the pool.
  8. Setups and payoffs
    The three big payoffs are A) Brad Pitt is a likable who is also dangerous. He’s a war hero who is rumored to have killed his wife and can hold his own with Bruce Lee, and doesn’t like people messing with his bosses car. B) Brady is a pit bull who eats “Good food for mean dogs” and is under Cliff’s control. C) Rick spent two weeks learning how to use a flamethrower on the set of The 14 Fists of McClusky. Cliff, Brandy, Rick (and his flame thrower) are all set up early in the story and paid off when the impact would be most felt.
    Setups & Payoffs
  9. Climax
    “Finish the story as soon as possible after the ‘big’ scene.”–  Francis Marion
    What can I say? There was a pit bull, a can of dog food, and a flamethrower all set in action to stop evil (all to the tune of Vanilla Fudge’s version of You Keep Me Hangin’ On”). Depending on how you count it the movie ends one or two scenes after the climax. 
    Francis Marion on Movie Endings (80 Year Old Advice)

  10. Catharsis -—For those that thought the climax was excessively brutal perhaps didn’t carry around four decades of memories of knowing that six people were shot, strangled, stabbed, and mutilated—including Sharon Tate who was 8 1/2 months pregnant when the Manson cult killed her. There have been worst murders before and since then, but for whatever reason the Tate/Labianca murders went down as some of the most shocking of the 20th century. (Polish filmmaker Wojciech Frykowski was stabbed 51 times at the Tate home.) Tarantino’s reworking of history was a cleansing of sorts. I thought he earned his ending.
    Pity, Fear, Catharsis (Tip #69)
  11. Resolution
    In the final scene Rick gets invited up to Sharon’s house to meet her and her friends and while it took an unusual “pool party” it is a nice bookend to what was setup early in the movie. Who knows, maybe Rick will land Jack Nicholson’s role in Chinatown and have a career in movies that mirrors the transition that Clint Eastwood and Burt Renyolds made going from TV cowboy actors to movie stars.
    Earn Your Ending
  12. Selling the shot
    One of the challenges of shooting Once Upon a Time was making Los Angeles look like it did in 1969. Old western movie sets and midcentury modern houses helped do some of the heavy lifting. The exterior driving shots in L.A. had to be a challenge. In interviews Tarantino said the key was to find two or three blocks that are somewhat generic and then you dress (or in some cases build facades) to help sell the shots as 1969. Often times these changes are done digitally, but Tarantino likes to do it old school. One simple thing the design team did was rent a large Greyhound bus. It’s in at least four different scenes. I imagine those are not hard to rent and because they are long can block a lot of modern signs and buildings.  Sometimes low tech is the easy fix.
  13. Two characters talking
    Tarantino, like Aaron Sorkin, is a verbal writer. So it’s no surprise that he leans into dialogue quite a bit in Once Upon a Time. But one of the secrets of writing great dialogue scenes is they are often reduced to two people talking. The simplicity of it just makes it easier to follow. So in Once Upon a Time you these scenes:
    Rick talking to Cliff
    Cliff talking to Marvin
    Cliff talking to his dog Brandy
    Sharon talking to Jay
    Rick talking to Sam Wannamaker
    Rick talking to Jim Stacy
    Cliff talking to Pussycat
    Cliff talking to Squeaky
    Cliff talking to George Spahn
    Rick talking to Trudi
    Rick talking to Johnny Madrid (the perfect old west cowboy name)
    Cliff talking (and fighting) to Bruce Lee
    Cliff talking (and beating up) Clem
    Rick talking to Randy
    Cliff talking to Randy
    While there are some great visuals throughout Once Upon a Time (and Sharon’s persona is largely communicated non-verbally),  I’d estimate 90% of the movie is essentially two characters talking.
  14. Emotions
    “Everything I write is an emotional catharsis. It’s my way of exercising demons.”—Diablo Cody
    Tarantino exercises some demons in Once Upon a Time and spreads a healthy dose of emotions throughout the movie. And the music and cinematography heighten those emotions. There’s anger (Rick’s outrage in trailer), fear (when Cliff walking down the hallway toward George’s room), joy (Sharon enjoying people enjoying the movie she’s in), and the list goes on.
    Emotion—Emotion—Emotion
  15. Tapping into what audiences want
    Aaron Sorkin says two things that always fascinate audiences are times of transition and a look behind the curtain.  In Once Upon a Time Tarantino does both. He sets in story in 1969 was one of the height of one of the biggest transitional periods in modern American history, and he shows a behind the scene look of how movies are made lives of those who work in the film industry.
  16. Begin with the end in mind
    While beginning with the end in mind is common advice in everything from building a business to building a house, it has not been the way that Tarantino has traditionally worked. Usually he says he knows about the midway part of his script before he starts writing, then the character lead the way to the end. But with Once Upon a Time he knew the ending at the start.
  17. Relationships
    “Positive relationships trump positive accomplishments.”—Lindsay Doran
    At the end of Once Upon a Time Rick makes a point to tell Cliff (just before the ambulance takes Cliff to the hospital) that he’s a good friend and Cliff simply responds, “I try.” We sense that though Cliff may not be working for Rick anymore that they are forever friends. After that Rick starts a new relationship with his next door neighbor Sharon and there’s hope that it could change the direction of his career.
    It’s the Relationships Stupid!
  18. Coincidence
    “Use coincidence to get characters into trouble, not out of trouble.”
—Alexander Mackendrick
    There’s a fair amount of coincidence at play in Once Upon a Time:  Rick living next door to Sharon, Cliff picking up a hitchhiker who happens to be a part of the Manson cult, Cliff working on the roof when Charles Manson visits Tate’s house, and the Manson family deciding to kill all the people in Rick’s house instead of Sharon’s, and Cliff’s dog Brandy at Rick’s house at the end. Perhaps the key lesson here is to tell a story where coincidence is used to get your protagonists into trouble, or at least is so embedded in the story that the audience won’t notice.
  19. Stakes
    Potential loss of career/income and life & death. (Though intellectually if Rick cashed in and invested his money wisely and bought a condo in Toluca Lake in 1969 and held on to it and were alive today (and avoided costly divorces) he’d be worth millions today. And professionally he could do the dinner theater thing, an indie film here and there, and guest slots on the Hollywood Squares.)
    What’s at stake?
  20. Let the actors act/ Let the camera roll
    There are several extended scenes where there is no editing. The filmmakers just let the scene (or parts of the scene) play out. This includes Rick and Cliff outside the Musso & Franks Grill, Rick and Cliff driving, Cliff and Bruce Lee interaction (from the start of the scene until Cliff gets knocked down), Rick and Trudi talking, and the Rick and Jim Stacy scene where Rick is forgetting his lines. Along with the great direction, acting, and editing is some tremendous camerawork in those scenes.
  21. Crane shots
    There are two incredible Technocrane (or a Technocrane-like crane) shots in the film. The first is early in the movie when the camera is above Rick as he floats in his pool and then cranes over the trees into the front of the Tate/Polanski house just as they are walking out the door and getting into their little sports car and driving away. And the second is a shot at the end when Rick starts walking up the driveway of the Tate/Polanski home and again cranes over the tress and sits above the drive way and Rick is welcomed by Sharon Tate and her friends. Even on big budget shoots you have to limited your days with specialty equipment. I don’t know if Director of Photography Robert Richardson and his team shot both those in one day, but they could have. The first shot was a dusk and the second was was a night shot. In fact, if the were really ambitious they could have shot the sequence with Cliff on the roof in the late afternoon light (doubling for early morning light) and then grabbed the dusk shot, and then the night shots. They probably didn’t, but they theoretically could have. And if you have a production where you have two or three money shots in one general locations you want to try to bundle them together so you limit your rental days with specialty equipment.
  22. Keep the background interesting
    The truth is the exteriors of movie studios often look like plain warehouses, but in Once Upon a Time they keep it visually interesting. In a scene with Cliff and the stuntman (Kurt Russell) several space aliens walk by in the background. As  Rick walks to the Lancer set a several horses and a wrangler walk pass in the background. As Rick and the 8-year-old Trudi talk during a lunch break on the Lancer set there is a camera on a dolly and lights in the background. The aliens, the horses, and the film equipment add visual interest (and sometime movement) to an otherwise pedestrian background. The same is true for the Spahn Ranch sequence were they utilize dogs, horses, and dust being blow to add a subtle action to background action.
  23. Magical movie moments
    Once Upon a Time has what I consider many magical moments.  Little things that just give a film that little something extra. It’s the sequence when the lights come on wth all the signage, when Pussycat does her little spin before catching a ride with Cliff and later when she jumps on the car at Spahn Ranch and yells “George isn’t blind, you are,” when Rick has his meltdown, and when Cliff makes himself comfortable on the roof revealing his scars and movie star glory.
  24. Music and Sound Design
    There are so many layers to this sound track I could sit in the dark and just listen to this movie—it’s that good. In film school we were taught that you could learn a lot by watching a movie with the sound off. But I’ve never just listened to a whole movie without the picture. But when the Once Upon a Time DVD comes out, I’m going to try that. There is one particular sound cue that I didn’t notice until Tarantino pointed out in an interview. It’s just as Cliff makes his way down the hallway to see George and Squeaky changes the channel on the TV from commercials or whatever TV show to a suspenseful movie we don’t see. The eerie track is a Bernard Herrmann composition for Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain. But Hitchcock didn’t like the score and not only didn’t use the music, but fired Herrmann. The two never spoke together after that breakup.
  25. Poetic Justice (with a touch of irony)
    The opening scene of Once Upon a Time is an old black and white industry news-style interview that introduces Rick as the star of the Tv show Bounty Law and his stunt double Cliff. In traditional western genre they are the good guys who catch the bad guys—with Cliff doing the dangerous stunt work so Rick doesn’t get hurt.  And at the end of the movie it is the real life of the characters that put an end to the bad guys—again with Cliff doing the dangerous work. Cliff ends up going to the hospital, and Rick gets invited to enter the gates to walk up the driveway of the Tate/Polanski house perhaps on his way to a career boost. Order has been restored in the new west. All it took was an unusual “pool party” with some uninvited guests.

More to come…

Related posts:

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“I would say 99% of your effort should go to writing a good script.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt

Tomorrow I’ll try to get my post on The Unofficial Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood Film School published.  Concepts based on Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film that I’ve now seen seven times in theaters. But today, I found this nugget from Tarantino from a “lost” interview he did with Jeff Goldsmith back in 2009. Here Tarantino talks about going from an unpaid screenwriter to a paid screenwriter.

“No one was interested in my stuff at all. What actually got me going as far as a writing career was concerned—I’d never had any success ever and finally I met a really good buddy of mine, his named Scotty Spiegel —he wrote Evil Dead 2. He’d just sold a big script. It was a big deal. He was involved in low budget horror films and stuff, so all his friends started calling up say, hey, would you do a re-write on my stuff? And he was like, well I can’t, I’m busy. But I have a friend of mine named Quentin maybe you should give him a call. So then all the sudden I was getting paid like $4,000 to do a little dialogue polish on somebody’s thing, and I got paid $6,000, and then I got paid $10,000 to do something. Well F—! I’d gotten paid $10,000 a year working for minimum wage. So for the first time I was actually making a living as a writer. It was unfathomable to me. I can tell you, from going from even that low amount of money, to actually directing a movie—which happened in about a year later, well that was kind of  a big leap—but there was no leap bigger than working at a video store and actually being able to exist from writing. That was the hugest leap. That was the Evel Knievel Snake River Canyon leap. Everything else was small by comparison to that leap. When I actually didn’t have to do a day job again that was a big deal.”
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino
The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith

Of course, buried in that answer is Tarantino was writing stuff that was solid enough that made a produced and working screenwriter recommend him to others. Talent mixed with the The 99% Focus Rule.

Related posts:
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter—John Logan
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter —Michael Arndt
Once Upon a Time …. in Hollywood— in 1987 (How Robert Townsend’s ‘Hollywood Shuffle’ Inspired Quentin Tarantino)

Scott W. Smith

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I learned all the rules of a modern day drifter
Don’t you hold on to nothin’ too long
My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys
Written by Sharon Vaughn
(Recorded by Willie Nelson for The Electric Horseman sound track)

Screen Shot 2019-08-15 at 9.53.14 PM.png

The Van Nuys Drive-In Theatre opened in 1948 and was demolished in the 1990s—but it found a new life in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. It’s where Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) lives in an Airstream trailer with his pit bull.

Actress Jane Russell began working in theater at Van Nuys High School on her way to becoming a Hollywood star working along side Marilyn Monroe, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, and Clark Gable. Natalie Wood (Rebel Without a Cause) graduated from Van Nuys High School in 1956.

Screen Shot 2019-09-12 at 8.27.58 PM.png

Jane Russell in “The Outlaw” (1943)

Another Van Nuys High School student who was more interested in sports than theater also went on to become a Hollywood star. Actor/director Robert Redford graduated in 1954 while Russell was still in her prime. Six years later Redford began his rise in the western Maverick— a show where Once Upon a Time’s Rick Dalton could have been a guest star.

Redford teamed up with Paul Newman on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), had an incredible run throughout the 70s, won an Oscar for directing Ordinary People (1980), started the Sundance Institute in 1981,  and got to use his athletic skills in The Natural (1984).

It’s near impossible to see Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood circa 1969—in Aviator sunglasses and a denim jacket no less— and not think of Redford circa 1970.

 

Redford directed Pitt in A River Runs Through It (1992) and they co-starred in Spy Game (2001).

Screen Shot 2019-09-12 at 9.07.59 PM.png

I did watch Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood for a seventh time today and it still holds up. It’s turning into the ultimate hangout movie for me as the two hour and 41 minutes flew by as I admired the craftsmanship on so many levels. And each time I see it I pull back a few more layers. Today was actually the first time I noticed that the movie rating at the Van Nuys rating was GP which was a pre-1972 PG and meant the film was intended for general audiences but parental guidance was suggested.

And since Redford came up in this post, one of his films I’d consider a spiritual cousin to Once Upon a Time… is The Electric Horseman. Redford plays a Rick Dalton/Easy Breezy-like character who is a past his prime rodeo star who drinks too much and—to pull a line from Tarantino’s movie— is “coming to terms with what it means to be slightly more useless each day.”

 

P.S. New Beverly Cinema double feature suggestion:

The Natural starring a 47-year-old Robert Redford and Moneyball starring a 48-year-old Brad Pitt. Two of my favorite films.

P.P.S. Van Nuys, California also had a small part in the classic Casablanca as the Van Nuys Airport doubled for an airport in Morocco. 

Screen Shot 2019-08-16 at 11.46.26 AM

Scott W. Smith

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“I saw the beginning of the sixties as a real transition in the culture, because of the Vietnam war and the things we were going through, and I wanted to make a movie about it.”
Director George Lucas on American Graffiti

“References to Modesto abound in American Graffiti, right down to the Ramona Avenue address where Carol lives and where Lucas grew up. The cruising loop, Mel’s Drive-In, Burger City  … the radio station—all have real-life antecedents in the crowded nighttime streets of Modesto in the late 1950s and early ’60s.”
Dale Pollack
Skywalking:The Life and Films of George Lucas
(American Graffiti was shot primarily in San Rafael north of San Francisco)

“I wasn’t thinking about [American Graffiti] when I was writing [Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood] but when I made the decision that I can use these [1960s KHJ] commercials—I can use this DJ stuff, we created a really interesting thing in the movie and I can kind of duplicate big chunks of that on the sound track album. And then that brought to mind American Graffiti— we can definitely do this. And then upon realizing that I realized how much the film had actually been influenced by American Graffiti between like characters in cars driving around all day seemingly aimlessly. Right down to the fact that Margaret Qualley’s Mason character Pussycat could be Suszanne Summers in the T-Bird. The girl [Richard Dreyfuss’ character] keeps seeing all over town. …But the thing is that ended up being a seminal album for me when I got it because I had just really started listening to oldies radio—that was during the 50s revival in the 70s—so I’m only like 13. I hadn’t even seen the movie. So  I’m loving the American Graffiti soundtrack on its own. I didn’t see the movie until it was re-released after Star Wars which was like ‘78.
Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino
Soundtracking, Episode 155, podcast interview with Edith Bowman 

You could also argue that the Margaret Qualley character in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is closer Mackenzie Phillips’ character in American Graffiti. The underage girl  that ends up driving the Modesto, California strip in cool guy Paul Le Mat’s hot rod.

P.S. The layers of Once Upon a Time go on and on. Mackenzie Phillips is the daughter of John Phillips  who wrote the songs on the  Once Upon a Time … soundtrack.Twelve Thirty recorded by the Mama’s and the Papa’s which he was a part of, and California Dreamin’ with Michelle Phillips (the Jose Feliciano version was used in the movie).

This isn’t the place to dive deep into the connections between John Phillips, Terry Melcher, Roman Polanski and Charles Manson, but let’s just say there’s no prince in shining armour in that group. I prefer Tarantino’s “fable”—as he calls his movie.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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“To me, torture would be watching sports on television.”
Quentin Tarantino

How in the world can you tie in a college football game in Florida with Quentin Tarantino’s movie Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood? It’s really not that hard because in Tarantino’s world everything is connected.

Once upon a time the rivalry between the University of Miami and the University of Florida was the Ali-Frazier battle of college football. Though they’ve been competing against each since 1938 it was the 80s and 90s when it turned into a slugfest. Since 1984 Miami or Florida have won a total of 8 national championships.

When they played this weekend it made me think of how Florida was connected to Tarantino’s world and his film Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood via some personal recollections. (BTW—I did watch the Miami—Florida game on Tv and at 3 hours it was even longer than Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. I have the ability to enjoy both.)

  1. Jackie Brown is based on Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch which was set in Florida. Tarantino changed the location to the more familiar Los Angeles County where he was raised.
  2. Actor/director Sylvester Stallone attended the University of Miami long before he became Rocky and a Hollywood icon. Stallone has said in interviews that he turned down roles in both Jackie Brown and Death Proof.  In Tarantino’s ever involving list of favorite films you will sometimes see the original Rocky film listed.
  3. Burt Reynolds briefly played football at Florida State in Tallahassee before also becoming a Hollywood icon. (He first studied acting at Palm Beach Junior College.) Reynolds was the biggest box office actor in the 1970s and his films were a huge influence on Tarantino growing up. The Rick Dalton character played by Leonardo DeCaprio was partly inspired by Reynolds and Tarantino cast Reynolds to played George Spahn in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.   
  4. In 1978 I went to one of the best concerts of my life at the Tangerine Bowl (now known as Camping World Stadium) in Orlando (which is where the game was played last Saturday between Miami and Florida). The final act of that ’78 concert was Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. Seger’s 1969 song Rambin’ Gamblin Man is featured on the soundtrack of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

    Seger_6125

    I was a concert rat back in the day and kept many of my ticket stubs. I think there were around 60,000 people in attendance.

  5. At the old Orlando arena I once saw Neil Diamond in concert and his work is also featured on the Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood soundtrack. He performs Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.
  6. Back in the 90s I was editing a video project a Greg Rike Productions in Altamonte Springs and was told that Deep Purple was regularly coming into the studio at night.  Apparently they liked to winter in the Orlando area where they could play soccer and rehearse. Deep Purple has two songs on the Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood soundtrack—Hush and Kentucky Woman (which was actually written by Neil Diamond).
  7. Another time when I was editing at that same facility I met one of the band members for Flock of Seagulls. In Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction Jules (John Travolta) calls one of the people he’s going to kill “Flock of Seagulls” because of the guy’s haircut.
  8. One of my high school football coaches was Sammy Weir who played one season with the New York Jets in 1966. The quarterback of the Jets in ’66? Joe Namath.
    SammyWeir_6121

    Here I am (#42) standing next to Coach Weir my senior year at Lake Howell. Weir was a Little All American at Arkansas St.

    When Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) walks into the Bruin movie theater to watch the movie The Wrecking Crew the movie trailer playing is for C. C. and Company and features Joe Namath. At the 35mm showing of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood I saw in Jacksonville they actually showed the original trailer of biker film featuring Broadway Joe (as Namath was known in his heyday).

  9. In the trailer for C.C. and Company (and in the movie) are clips of musician Wayne Cochrane with his pompadour in full glory. Cochran was known as The White Knight of Soul and he is said to be the inspiration behind Elvis in his jumpsuit era. Cochran spent his last years in Miami where he was an evangelist.
  10. Jim Morrison of The Doors is mentioned in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and he was born in Melbourne, Florida, was a student a Florida State University, and cut his singing chops playing in bars in Tallahassee. Another musician on the edge of the story was Graham Parsons who was raised in Winter Haven, Florida on his way to being a part of The Byrds. The Byrds road manger Phil Kaufman knew Charles Manson while in prison at the Terminal Island Prison and encouraged Manson to pursue a music career. (That prison is not far from Torrance, California where Tarantino grew up.)  Manson eventually met Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and that leads Manson to meeting record producer Terry Melcher in hopes of getting a record contract. Melcher once lived at  10050 Cielo Drive. Some speculate that when Manson’s cult members went to Cielo Drive it was an effort to payback or scare Melcher for not following through with a record deal for Manson.
  11. When Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) pulls into the Van Nuys Drive In theater one of the movies on the marquee is Pretty Poison which stars Anthony Perkins. Perkins went to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida (an Orlando suburb). Fred Rogers—better known as Mr. Rogers—also went to Rollins. At one of the viewings I went to there was a trailer for the new Mr. Rogers movie starring Tom Hanks.
  12. I’ve often joked that I had the shortest career of any football player who ever put on a University of Miami football uniform. I was a walk-on player (non-scholarship) who dressed out for exactly one JV game, and that happened to be a game against Florida. I played exactly zero downs which was the only time that ever happened in 10 years of playing organized football. I dislocated my shoulder the week after that game and had it operated on. Though I was a good high school player I was a athletic version of Rick Dalton by the time I was 20. One thing sports teaches you at every level is there is a pyramid of talent and that pyramid is always rotating. Jerry Rice was one of the top players to ever play NFL football. (A top of the pyramid wide receiver.) But at the end of his career when in was with the Denver Broncos he retired after learning that he would no longer be a starter. The head coach when I was at Miami was Howard Schnellenbeger who as an assistant at the University of Alabama in the early ‘60s is the one who recruited Joe Namath to play for the Crimson Tide.
  13. I made my first 8mm film while at the University of Miami with my arm in a sling after surgery on my shoulder. The rock star in the film program then was David Nutter who went on to win an Emmy for directing an episode of Game of Thrones. I heard (though don’t know if he’s still attached) that he was directing some episodes of TV version of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff—that is being produced by Appian Way Productions which is Leonardo F-ing DiCaprio’s company.  (Tampa Bay Times article on The Right Stuff shooting in area.) I did see photos that they had set up shop at Universal Studios Orlando which is just a couple miles from when I’m typing this post.
  14. And while Scarface has nothing to do with Once Upon a Time … Hollywood (that I know of), it was shot in Miami and directed by one of Tarantino’s favorite directors Brian DePalma. 
  15. Toward the end Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood Brad Pitt says “And awaaay we go” which is a famous tagline of Jackie Gleason who from 1966-1970 hosted The Jackie Gleason Show “live from Miami Beach.” Gleason played Burt Reynolds nemesis in Smokey and the Bandit—a movie that Tarantino says warrants repeat viewings.

P.S. Updated bonus track: After a University of Miami football game in 1981 the Beach Boys played a concert at the Orange Bowl. (And were oddly paired that night with the Commodores.) That was two years before Dennis Wilson died and so I assume he was part of that gig. The Beach Boys were formed in 1961 in Hawthorne, California and a few years later a young Quentin Tarantino attended Hawthorne Christian School for part of his elementary years. (A school he’s said he wasn’t fond of attending.)

And two more Florida connections to Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is celebrity hairstylist and Sharon Tate buddy Thomas John Kummer went professionally by the name Jay Sebring, taking his last name from Sebring, Florida which is known for its international raceway. And lastly, Walt Disney gets a nice shout out in the movie when Julia Butters says Disney was a once in 50 years kind of genius. As someone who grew up in Central Florida I’ve always said Orlando basically only had indoor plumbing and air conditioning before Walt Disney’s vision of Disney World opened here in 1971. To go there that year as a ten year old was personally a transformative experience. Just riding the monorail at the start of the day was surreal to my senses. The Haunted Mansion, 2000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride were mind blowing fun.

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I still have some of my early Walt Disney World tickets.

The first Disney movie I remember seeing in theaters was The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes (1969) which stars Kurt Russell—who, of course, is in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. 

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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“It’s not your job to create your vision. It’s your job to have a vision.”
Terry Gilliam

Two of the most unusual moviegoing experience of my life were the works of the same director. The first was when I was in high school and went to see Jabberwocky (not a good first date film) and the second was in my early twenties when I went to a screening on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank of Brazil. Both were the vision of writer/director Terry Gilliam.

Before Quentin Tarantino made his first film he’d seen enough movies to know there was a wide variety of ways movies could look. He particluarly studied low-budget films because he knew if he ever got his chance to make a feature that the budget would be closer Blood Simple than Heaven’s Gate.  He knew what he wanted his films to look like someday, but he didn’t know how to accomplish his vision. Just before he made Reservoir Dogs he was chosen to attend the Sundance Labs in Utah where one of the people he got to work with was the writer/director Terry Gilliam. (And this was at a time when Gilliam was coming off of directing The Fisher King.)

So Tarantino was able to ask Gilliam how he was able to get such a consistent look in his movies.

“Terry you have a direct cinematic vision in your movies. And it goes from movie to movie to movie —how do you do that? And he goes, ‘Quentin maybe because you’ve never been on a film set before maybe you don’t understand how it works so let me explain this to you a little bit. It’s not your job to create your vision. It’s your job to have a vision. And it’s your job to hire talented individuals, to hire talent artists who understand your vision. And you articulate it to them and then they take vision and they create it. . . .  Your vision is still a two-dimensional vision. They will take the different elements of your vision and make it three-dimensional. And then you’ll get back more than you gave them. And then you’ll know more about what you’re talking about. And then the vision will get filled in. You think you have to do everything and you don’t. You don’t need to know anything about sewing to have wonderful costumes in your film, you just need to express what you want to the costume designers. You don’t need a degree in engineering to have wonderful sets in your pieces. You need to be able to describe what you want. You don’t need to know how to take a bunch of different light stands to create a different effect. That’s not your job! You don’t need to know any of that. You need to have a vision, and you need to know how to express it.’”
Quentin Tarantino on meeting Terry Gilliam
UCLA talk in 2016

I hope when the DVD comes out on Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood comes out that it’s full of clips of the behind the scene team at work helping Tarantino realize his vision.

Scott W. Smith

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“When I’m doing a movie, I’m not doing anything else. It’s all about the movie. I don’t have a wife. I don’t have a kid. Nothing can get in my way.”
Quentin Tarantino in 2009
GQ article Triumph of His Will

It’s offical—Once Upon a Time …. in Hollywood became the first movie I’ve ever seen in theaters more than three times. I saw it for the fourth time yesterday, and if I’d had the time I would have watched it again right way.

For me it’s just been a rare movie going experience and one that I’m not sure will come again any time soon.

And this from someone who wouldn’t consider himself a Quentin Tarantino fanboy. I went to Hateful Eight in 70mm and left disappointed. I appreciate his talent for remixing influences, but don’t enjoy his casual use of violence. I didn’t see any of his prior films in the theater more than once, many of his movies I didn’t even go to while they were in theaters, and I skipped Death Proof all together.

Which makes me wonder why Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood resonated with me so much. I think part of it was being alive in 1969 (albeit I was 8 and 9 years old then),  having spent five years in LA on the fringes of the film industry, being aware of the Charles Manson cult, and having a lifelong love of movies.

After seeing Once Upon with an almost full audience on the opening night the first comment I heard was from a 20-something girl who “What did I just watch?” My guess is she had little or no idea who Charles Manson was or what he and his cult did back in 1969.

Tarantino doesn’t spoon feed you that information with any expositional dumps. If any thing he downplays things. What he does brilliantly is play on expectations. Somewhere early in my first viewing I remember thinking “How is he going to land this plane.”

It was like Hitchcock’s bomb under the table. Screenwriting 101. As long as the audience sees the bomb under the table you can have actors at the table discuss anything and it will be riveting. Some do that for a scene or two. But here Tarantino does it for almost entire film. All but the last scene of the two hour and 40 minute film is a ticking bomb.

Tarantino and cast and crew layer the film with character studies wonderfully acted, a zillion culture reference, beautiful cinematography, and spellbinding sound tack. In a world crowded with content, it stands out as exceptional and emotional storytelling. It’s also one that rewards audiences with repeat viewings. (Well, at least the ones that don’t hate this film.)

For the dozen or so movies I’ve seen three times in theaters, I’ve found that three times is the maximum amount of viewings before I determine that the next time I see it will be on DVD or streaming. But what made this fourth viewing better that the others was I bought the movie sound track on CD (a first in the last decade or so) and listened to it repeatedly over the past week. It’s a joy all by itself. Then I also listened to Karina Longworth’s 12 part You Must Remember This podcast on “Charles Manson’s Hollywood.”

That podcast gave many wonderful insights into the times and people involved in the surrounding story. That podcast was released in 2015 and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was part of Tarantino’s inspiration with wanting wrap a story around that faithful hot August night in 1969.

On this fourth viewing I really appreciated the range of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance. On the first viewing of the film I really wanted to see Matt Dillion in that roll of an aging actor. An actor that is closer to Brad Pitt’s age, and one who had some great leading roles 15-20+ years ago. (And one who as the same namesake as the sheriff on Gunsmoke.) But on a $90 million budget I understand needing someone who attract a wide audience so I wanted to see Tom Cruise as the aging actor. On the third viewing I was good with DiCaprio, but still wished he was 10 years older—or at least looked a little more worn. On this viewing, I was good with DiCaprio as is.

Though this is Tarantino’s ninth film this is his first film to complete while married. Perhaps that altered his sensibilities for the better. There is something intellectual (even mystical learning toward spiritual) in this film that I did experience in his pervious films.

Perhaps after the fifth viewing in theater (which their no doubt will be) I will be able to articulate what it is about this movie that’s made be respond the way I have. But in the meantime here are a few dots that were connected and memory doors that the movie opened for me and warranted my record breaking viewing.

  1. When I was in film school in Los Angeles in the early 80s I briefly worked at Frank’s Camera in Highland Park (not far from Dodger Stadium) and I sold a camera to a fellow who worked in the film industry and I asked him if he had any advice for someone starting out. He looked at me dead serious and said “Don’t get married.” It was such unexpected advice that it hit me hard. In many ways working in film and television is like joining the circus and not exactly conducive to a normal family life. Tarantino has spoken openly about the sacrifices he made to become the great filmmaker he is. In my early 20s I met several people in L.A. who were in their 40s and 50s who had some success in Hollywood, yet were still waiting for their big break and I knew I didn’t want to be one of those people. I got married when I was 24-years-old and carved out a niche working in production and having a family life.  Tarantino says he didn’t even have a girlfriend until he was 25 (though he pointed out in a interview that he was “the king of first dates). He got married last year at age 56.
  2. When I moved to L.A. in 1981 I rented a studio apartment on Riverside Dr. in Burbank next to some horse stables connected to what is now called the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. I met my wife at that apartment complex. We once rented horses and went on a trail ride there. This week I read that’s where Tarantino’s parent met. In Once Upon a tourist from Tennessee named Connie goes on a horse back ride at Spahn Ranch. Tarantino’s mother is from Tennessee and named Connie.
  3. When Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) says “Okay Kato” to Bruce Lee it snaped a memory to me that The Green Hornet (1966-67) was a favorite TV show of mine as a kid. I couldn’t tell you what a single episode was about, but I remember wearing a Green Hornet ring. This was a very distant memory and one that I wasn’t even sure was a real memory. So last night I googled “Green Hornet ring” and sure enough that was a real thing and I even found a commercial for it.
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  5. When I saw that Tarantino married 35-year-old Daniella Pick I wondered if Tarantino wasn’t getting into position to start a family. Yesterday I read that Daniella is pregnant. Tarantino has said that he wanted to make 10 films and then retire from feature filmmaking at age 60. It’s possible that that could happen. But it’s also probable that he’ll be creating long form streaming content, writing plays and books. And like Steven Soderbergh and Michael Jordan it’s possible that he’ll un-retire down the road. I hope he doesn’t stop creating because I kinda dig this (relatively) kinder, gentler Tarantino.
  6. I grew up on Burt Reynold’s movies as did Tarantino and while I haven’t heard anyone make this connection, but I wonder if The 14 Fists of McClusky wasn’t a nod to Reynold’s character Gator McKlusky in White Lighting (1973) and Gator (1976). Reynold’s  was cast to play the George Spahn character in Once Upon but unfortunately died before his parts were shot. (But Tarantino points out he did do table reads and rehearsals so it was his last role). Back in 1969, Reynolds started in the western Sam Whiskey.  Actress Tracey Roberts has a part in that film and is who I studied acting with in the early 80s. Laura Dern also studied with Roberts, and her father Bruce Dern is the one who replaced Reynolds as George Spahn. Screen Shot 2019-07-30 at 3.08.59 AM
  7. Like a lot of kids I grew up watching old westerns on TV, but I had the benefit of having a Western theme park not far from where I grew up. Six Gun Territory was a place in Ocala, Florida that had an old west town, gun fights and can-can girls. I not only visited a couple of times as a kid but shot part of my first 16mm film there. One of the times I visited my father drove my sister and I up in his Karmann Ghia. The same car that Pitt’s character drives around in Once Upon. 
  8. When Smokey and the Bandit starring Burt Reynolds hit theaters I was 16 years old and I remember well how exhilarating it was after the movie was over and getting in my car to drive away. Tarantino has said that Smokey and the Bandit is a movie that holds up well with repeated viewings. Tarantino is a writer/director who thinks of the audience from the early idea stages through post production. It’s how this movie takes me back to film school when I rode a motorcycle up and down Hollywood Blvd. at night.
  9. Even though Once Upon is a centered on a bromance, Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley, and Julia Butter shine in their scenes. I would have been fine with Tarantino expanding any of their roles, but it would have pushed the movie over the 3 hour mark.
  10. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is still a full sensory experience even if you weren’t alive in the 1960s, if you never visited Six Gun Territory, if your dad didn’t have a Karmann Ghia, and even if you never even visited Los Angeles —but you may not see it four+ times.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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